Editor's Note: Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay is a Lao American writer. She writes primarily poetry and theater about the Lao American refugee experience—a chapbook, Lessons for Our Time, published by Minnesota Center for Book Arts; a play, Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals, produced by Mu Performing Arts and Southern Theatre in 2013; Hmong-Lao Friendship Play or Lao-Hmong Friendship Play, produced by Lazy Hmong Woman Productions and Intermedia Arts in 2015; and other projects. In addition, Vongsay is a co-founder of the Lao American Writers Summit, the first of which was hosted at the Loft Literary Center in 2010; the Community Outreach Coordinator at the University of Minnesota's Asian American Studies Program; has served on the board of directors of arts organizations, including Intermedia Arts and Saint Paul Almanac; and has taken numerous other leadership roles in the arts community. Currently, she is also a Many Voices Fellow at the Playwrights' CEnter, as well as a Spoken word Immersion Fellow at the Loft.
Most recently, I sat down with Saymoukda this week for a warm, humorous, and inspiring conversation about her first installation, her efforts in advocating for artists, and her experiences as a Lao American refugee and writer. Saymoukda's first installation, "Ahan on Spoons: Poems on a Refugee's Forgiveness," pairs verse with photographs from her years as a child in a refugee camp of Nongkhai, Thailand. The photographs are pasted onto soup spoons; both spoons and verse are arranged in a circle as though around a bowl of soup, and displayed with a blue dress that Saymoukda's mother has owned for over thirty years. The poems are evocative of an earlier work of hers, "When Everything Was Everything," which won the Alfred C. Carey Prize in Spoken Word Poetry in 2010. The installation was funded by Knight Arts, and has exhibited throughout July in the Smallest Museum St. Paul at Workhouse Coffee Bar. Tomorrow (Sunday) marks the last day of the installation, which closes with an artist reception from 12 p.m.-2 p.m. celebrating Saymoukda and her work. Check it out!
Irene Hsu: Why the soup spoons?
Saymoukda Vongsay: I just like soups. I feel like broth is a comforting thing for people to have. It reminds me of that children's book, Stone Soup. I loved that story. It was about giving. There was this lady who was like, "I guess I might have carrots. And pork. And beef bone." That's what it was like in the camps. They were giving to one another, even though they had so little to give themselves. Even thinking about the refugee community here. We did a lot with as little as we could. Plus, I thought [the spoons] would be cool. I wanted a bowl in the center, but it was too heavy and would have fallen off.
IH: And I feel like I've only seen these spoons in my own family, other Asian families, and Asian restaurants.
SV: Exactly. Visually, if you were far away, you could identify this installation as part of an Asian or Asian American experience.
IH: Can you tell me about the title of the installation? "Ahan on Spoons: Poems on a Refugee's Forgiveness."
SV: "Ahan" means "food." So it means, "Food on Spoons." We feed not just food, but support, and even our time, to one another. If you didn't have a babysitter and had to work your job, you could leave your kid with an Auntie in the community. We supported each other that way. "Ahan" could mean, different ways of fueling each other. It's a play on that word.
IH: And "Poems on a Refugee's Forgiveness"? I feel like it pairs with the last lines of your installation description:
"I've been told numerous times by my peers that I should have an exhibition of my photographs because they're intrigued by my childhood. It's rare, they say, that I have so many photos. Sometimes I wonder how that's possible too? Like, how dare we ignore our poverty, our trauma, to pose for photographs."
It evokes feelings of bitterness, guilt, awe.
SV: It's cheeky. People would tell me, God, didn't you struggle? And I'm like, yes! We struggled. My dad had to feed me geckoes! You think we liked geckoes? They have no meat!
But we were privileged. Out of all my friends, I do have the most photos from those in refugee camps. Time and time again, my friends tell me I have so many photos. In camps, it was expensive to take photos and get your photos developed. But my mom was a photographer—she was the daughter of a governor, of a Lao province. In that way, I think people treated us differently and shared more with us. I don't think my family took advantage of that, but it was appreciated, and they gave back in many ways. And if it weren't for a photographer, these memories would have been forgotten. For instance, this photo is of my brother holding a spoon, and I'm holding a toy tommy gun. My mom saw this photo, and immediately was like, "I remember what happened." They sat us down to take this picture. They got me a toy truck from a bin of things, and my brother had a toy tommy gun. Right before the picture was taken, I snatched it from him. Before the picture he was smiling, but he just let me have it. My mother was like, your brother has always been that way with you. What you snatched, he let you have it. It made me love my brother more, in another way, to learn he had always been that way. I don't know how my mom would have fished that out of her memory, if she hadn't been triggered by this photograph.
IH: I noticed that you've included a lot of lines from your poem in 2015, "When Everything Was Everything." Could you tell me more about how your poems live and occupy different spaces.
SV: I want people to access my work in different ways. Some people want to do it visually, some people want to hear it only, some people only want to read it. So this is one of the first times I've put my poems in a visual art type of thing. I just wanted to see if I could do it, and make it look interesting. That's really it.
IH: I liked that this poem you had originally read linearly, felt cyclical in this installation.
SV: I really just arranged it as it would fit on that board. There was no rhyme or reason, really. But I had actually written haikus for this—completely new poems, that were actually about forgiveness. Forgiving my mom and dad for missing my volleyball games. Forgiving my best friend from third grade for telling kids to pick on me, when she found out I had tuberculosis. She told all these kids not to play with me and was the head of the bullies. So I wrote a haiku forgiving her for that. I read the haikus again and I just didn't like the way they sounded. I was like, what am I going to do? I have to put this up in, like, three hours. And I had already been working on these poems for a month and a half. I just knew it didn't feel right for me to put them on there. Maybe these haikus just wanted to be something else. Maybe they want to be short stories. I can't force it to be what I want it to be.
IH: Haiku is such a condensed form.
SV: Yeah, they're really restricted. Maybe they're actually Senryū, because they're not about nature—so maybe I've misnamed them.
But people love this poem, "When Everything Was Everything." I've been riding its coattails, which I'm okay with. But at some point I need to produce a new body of work. I actually received a fellowship to work on new stuff, which I'm really happy about. But that poem—people just feel connected to it in some ways., and I'm really proud of it because it's one of my most honest poems. Everything else had been stupid—about me liking oranges, or something. I'm excited because an excerpt of it is going to be on a broadside that goes on buses and trains and stuff. So if you ride a train, you might see my poem in one of the cars. I'm like, wow, I made it!
IH: Public transit has such a wide audience, and people are so open to reading what's on the walls.
SV: Because they have nothing to do! I'm happy my audience will expand in that way. I may never get to see them, or interact with them, but I hope that they would read it—even if it were just a line, and feel moved by something, and feel that it affects their life in some way.
IH: I'm thinking about what you're saying about haikus—maybe they have another life, maybe they belong in short stories, maybe they belong in another form. I'm curious about what your thoughts on genre are, and how you see different kinds of genres and forms relating to the stories you want to tell.
SV: I've always felt that poetry was the easiest thing for me to write, because I didn't have to write complete sentences. I could write a list poem and it didn't have to rhyme for me. And that was one of the first ways I got into writing—because of poetry. As a young kid, reading short stories, I was intimidated to write those, or other genres. Comics were also accessible for me, in terms of reading material, because everything was so short, and there were pictures. A lot of the words I didn't know—because I was an English language learner—I used the pictures to help me tell the story. And sometimes I'd make up the stories myself if I didn't know what was being said.
Theater is still very hard for me. I'm still relatively new to it—I only started with theater in 2012. If I hadn't gotten that fellowship from Theater Mu, I wouldn't have done it full on. I wouldn't have been a playwright full on. But because that opened up so many opportunities for me, it made me feel like Lao narratives could live on the American stage.
I know that sounds weird to say because I've always told people that our stories matter, that we should find different ways of telling our stories, but it has been challenging to cultivate an audience, especially from within the Lao community, to attend theater, and also to get others to learn about Lao people in general. A lot of the narratives people hear are from the Vietnamese community, or the Cambodian community. When people came to watch Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals, I don't think a lot of people knew where Laos was, who Lao people were, what Lao people experienced during the Secret War. So that was a good way of introducing a lot of people to my community and our history of trauma and resettlement. I don't think if I wrote a play called The History of Lao People During the Vietnam War, that a lot of people would come. But if I write a play called Kung Fu Zombies, people are like, "Ooh!" I sort of tricked them into learning.
I was recently approached by a publisher to see if I wanted to write a children's book based off my poem, "When Everything was Everything," so that's something I'm thinking about. It's never lived in that form before, and even I like children's books. That's something I want to try. Another publisher approached me about trying non-fiction. And I'm like, I've never done that before, but in some ways my plays and my poems are non-fiction, so it might not be that different. I want to give that a shot too.
I basically do what people tell me I should do. Because sometimes I feel that people see your potential and you should follow that if it feels comfortable for you. Sometimes I'll tell my mentees something like, "Your poems suck. Stick to essays! Your voice as an essayist is bomb! Your voice as a poet sucks!" I don't say it in that way. But sometimes people see the magic in you and your potential. If you said "Mooks, you should try sculpture," I'd be like, "Yeah! Okay!"
IH: That's great that you're open to moving your poems and projects into different spaces, and are given the opportunity for that.
SV: And I'm so grateful for that. There are people who just aren't given the opportunity to and have barriers put up in front of them, and I'm like, that sucks. Your work is dope. So I'm so happy that I live in a community where people share resources and push you toward opportunities. There are some gatekeepers, but that's okay. We just avoid them.
IH: I want to ask you more about this question of community. I remember in one of your interviews I was watching, you mentioned that you were one of a few Lao American writers here in Minneapolis. Tell me more about your experience with that—and do you see a relationship between your creative community, and the community you share your history with? Are these the same communities for you?
SV: I will say that from my community, there are people who do art—like dancers, musicians, people who do artistic things and are creative people. But there is less than a handful of people who pursue it as a career—like, this is who I am. There are people who enjoy writing but they aren't intentionally seeking to go do a reading, for instance. That's fine.
But in 2008, I met another Lao American writer. He ended being my mentor because he's older and had more experience with writing as a career, so he was helping steer me toward resources—try that, avoid this—basically trying to help me understand, if this were my career, what I needed to set up. We were trying to find other Lao writers. Before then, we were mostly in circles of Hmong and Cambodian and Vietnamese people, because there just weren't a lot of Lao writers. But we wanted our own. We wanted people who spoke the language, who understand the nuances of our culture, who had similar experiences, ate similar foods, whose parents told similar crude inappropriate sexual jokes.
So we started researching Laotian American writers and artists, and found that nationally, there were people in different parts—one in Tennessee, one in Philadelphia, one in San Diego—and that was what it was like. We organized the first Lao American Summit in 2010, held at the Loft. The only way we could connect these artists and build a community was if we get them all here and share one space together, so we raised enough money to fly everyone in. We knew that was the only way. Facebook groups don't work. It's not the same. That first convening was about 30 people, and it was more than just writers. We knew if it were just writers, we wouldn't have that many people, so we also brought in musicians, and visual artists.
Last month, we had our fourth convening in Seattle. That number grew to 400 people. For the community nationally to support that vision and keep it going—we wouldn't have been able to do it, just the four of us. There have been people saying, so you had a summit. What's the big deal? Well, it's a big deal because our community is very small here in the U.S. Even in Minnesota, there's like 10,000 of us. We're really spread out. Even just outside of the creative arts, because the Lao community is so geographically dispersed—we don't have a high concentration of our group in any one city, except Brooklyn Park, which has about 30% of the Lao population—it's hard to organize ourselves as a political force or a civically engaged community. There are quite a number of Lao activists who are helping to create policy changes, but it does get a bit exhausting, because I'm one of keeps getting tapped by people to do readings, cultural shows, whatever, because I'm Lao. This is why I'm trying to cultivate more Lao artists—because I'm exhausted representing us all the time. But at the same time, time is an issue for people too. A lot of young artists are students, or their parents are not understanding of what they want to do, really, so they can't get out. There's more than just me. There are others out there, too. But at the same time, I do appreciate being invited to sit at the table when it's not just about meeting the quota—about being "that Lao voice"—but rather, about my perspective and my experiences.
IH: That was something else I wanted to ask about—because in addition to writing plays and poems, you also serve on panels and boards, and you teach as well and advocate for other writers. Can you tell me more about how you manage all that's on your plate?
SV: I do have to scale back sometimes. It's not to say I'm not appreciative for platforms that help me hone leadership skills, because for a long time, I wasn't invited to the table, and I wasn't given opportunities to have leadership roles. So I'm really happy I had all those opportunities. In addition to being an artist, I'm passionate about advocating for other artists in ways that I can—for instance, by serving on panels for funding. It's a way of supporting the artists and projects I believe in, as well as to check other panelists. I also hold grant-writing retreats for artists. My friend and I, people come up to us for advice on grants and we're not experts, but we like to share our experiences with what we know, just to be as helpful as we can for our community. We do that because we know it'll be a while for funders to change the way they operate. Until that happens, we need to help our community navigate those systems. That work has three different tentacles: serving on panels so you can help change the way people think about communities, applicants and art forms; helping artists navigate the system; and having meetings with funders about what needs to change. There needs to be different levels of engagement. As artists, we know that grants aren't sustainable, but if we can get them, let's get them.
A couple years ago, I had to resign from a lot of these boards. Every organization I served on as a board member, I've been really passionate about. But there's too many factors. My art was picking up, so I just needed to resign. I've been saying no to a lot of readings, unless [the organizers] are people I really know, unless there's a real excitement for it.
I used to feel obligated to do stuff, but I've gotten over feeling guilty. Like, if I don't do it and my voice isn't there, will it go well? Even though...maybe my community will be okay without my one voice. But my friends tell me, sometimes you need to say no and practice self-care. Things will move on.
IH: What keeps you going? Books, movies, friends, family members who keep you writing what you're writing?
SV: My husband is a huge motivator. He's also an artist, in music, and he used to do graffiti. He's one of the people who tells me to do things when I feel hesitant. Maybe he's just trying to keep me busy so I don't nag him. Could be that. Sometimes I need to watch dumb shit to mellow out. I watch action movies and violent movies. I don't consider myself a violent person, like I don't like fighting physically. But there's that Southeast Asian refugee side of me. I can't fight, let's be real, but I feel empowered that I could do it because of the movies I watch.
I'm reading books by writers of color, especially writers who are local. I need to know my friends' works much better than just going to their readings and their plays. I need to know about their experiences, too.
IH: What are you reading right now?
SV: I just finished Thousand Star Hotel, by Bao [Phi], and I'm reading The Sympathizers. I have a pile of books—eight books. After the Sympathizers, I have The Bride Price by Mai Neng Moua, and Sun Yung Shin's poetry book. The Song Poet, by Kao Kalia Yang. I have a list of my friends' stuff that I need to get through. They're inspirations to me. Even just hearing them talk, I just fall in love with them. How is it that you live here? That always amazes me that they are accessible and nice. It excites me when I think about the talent here. In every way possible, they've paved the way for young writers like me. They're more than just writers. Every single writer has advocated for us at the policy level. They're activists, they write op-eds and change people's minds, they organize. Every single one of them has worked in different sectors to make those changes, to make literary eco-systems much more equitable. Their work has inspired me to do as much as I can in the same way.
There's this Buddhist saying my dad used to tell me: You're worth is what you can give back to and for your community. Altruistic giving without expecting anything back, being a community multiplier—that has always stuck with me. Also because I'm a refugee. My mom and dad always said, we had our hands out like this [with palms up], and we were given resources. Once we're stable, we should turn our hands out this way [with palms down] and give what we can.
But our family has a complicated relationship with the United States. First they bombed our country, and then they bring us here as though they're saviors. But if they weren't saviors...I don't know. It's complicated.
IH: How do you work with that political and historical complexity in your writing? Has that relationship changed for you over the years?
SV: I will say that I didn't think about this deeply until seven or eight years ago. The only thing I can do is to tell my and my family's stories. Within our communities, our stories are so varied. Some of us were airlifted from the camps. Some of us, our families never experienced labor camps. I've been told that even my family, when we were in the refugee camps, was privileged because we had better food, or better clothes. It's interesting to hear people say that within refugee camp life when we've escaped to the same place, though I'm not going to knock someone for calling out my privilege.
I also think I've gotten more brave to name the different ways that the U.S. has mistreated my communities. We're taught to respect and appreciate what has been given to us because so much has been taken away. We forget that different parties had roles in that—not just America, but communist Lao, the French, the Japanese. Our country has had this complicated history of occupation. Even within my community, I've been advised by elders not to be too loud about my opinions of the government. I don't know if it's fear of government, fear of punishment, or out of respect. It can be challenging when I want to create change for my community when my community might not want that, or don't know that black lives matter, or are police brutality deniers. How can you say that when every family has had a member who was dragged out of the house? How can you not understand systemic oppression?
I've gotten to a point where I bypass my community sometimes. I don't wait for approval or blessings from the elders. I don't got time. But I'm doing this project for the Loft Spoken Word Immersion Fellowship, where I'll be interviewing elders and survivors of the Secret War to hear about their stories, their lives before they were disrupted, they're escape stories. I want to take their stories and create poems for, about their experiences. There have been some elders I approached who would tell me, "My story's not important. I'm no one." Sometimes I get frustrated but I know that they're just not ready to talk about it. It's hard, because there are a lot of people from my generation who just don't have a clue of what our elders have experienced, so we feel disconnected emotionally. A lot of us don't know the questions to ask, and our elders still have trauma. Not many of us seek safe spaces for us to talk about these things. Therapy is not a thing. Maybe that's why I write about these topics. My writing is where I figure things out.
One thing that was really awesome about the summit in Seattle was that the organizers did an awesome job about getting word out about the summit, and for a lot of participants, this was their first conference! Just to see nationally, the topics that people were exploring with their art, and the different identities that each person held, and how that informs the art they're creating, it was so varied and inspiring for me. I wish they were all in Minnesota so I could have a Lao artist community.
IH: Are you still organizing the summit?
SV: My co-founders and I act as the national team, and we provide advice and templates for grants and programming to local teams. We want to cultivate leaders to implement their vision of what their community needs. The next summit will be in Philadelphia, in 2020. It's our tenth anniversary, so the co-founders will be organizing that one. One co-founder is also a co-founder of Yellow Rage in Philadelphia, so she already has a built-in audience for her work.
I feel like the Lao Writer's Summit has always been inclusive of other art forms. There are always dancers, musicians, visual artists, who are integral to the summit. We're all creative documentarians. We just have different ways of communicating our stories. We call it Lao Imagination. Lao Imagination is, what do we see for our community in forty years? We've been here for a little more than forty years, as a community, since the war. But what does the next forty years look like for us?
IH: I'm curious how you would answer that question.
SV: I might be dead in forty years, to be honest. But in forty years, I would like to see, for our community...who was it, Yoyo Ma, who said that it takes three generations to create artists? The first generation is focused on survival. The second generation is focused on education. And then the third generation is allowed to be creative.
I don't think he meant it to mean that the arts are a luxury. But maybe by that time, people have healed, or their voices are no longer quivering. Their voices will be bolder. We'll have to ask Yo-Yo Ma what he meant. But I feel like in forty years, we will have a community that is vocal and active. Maybe we'll have more books written by Laotian Americans that are published by major institutions. Right now, if I ask somebody to name one or two books written by a Lao American, they wouldn't be able to do it. That's such a disconnect. We've been here for forty years. We should have more books published, not just by small presses, but by major institutions.
And it's so odd that we come from a culture that has had centuries and generations of art makers. For us to come to this country and feel like we can't be creative producers—it's so odd.
I feel fortunate that my family was a family of artists, so they understood. But I feel bad that, for instance, my cousin was an awesome soccer player. But because of gender expectations, she was expected to stay at home, and she wasn't given that freedom. My cousin and I were the same age. I was encouraged to do volleyball and basketball, and run track, so it was hard to watch my cousin be restricted in that way. Who knows what she could have been? She was so good. I feel like her mom just didn't trust her, seeing that she was a girl—or maybe her mom didn't trust the world to keep her safe. My aunt went through a lot during the war, too. There was so much violence against women, during that time. So a part of that might not be reconciled. But I just wonder, wow, if my aunt had let my cousin take that risk, what could she have been?
IH: To any readers of this interview, who are some Laotian American writers you would recommend?
SV: Bryan Thao Worra has several books out. He writes speculative poetry. Catzie Vilayphonh is a Philly-based spoken word poet. She's Youtube-able. Krysada Phounsiri is a San Diego-based poet. His debut book of poems, Dance Among Elephants has been selling very well within the Lao community. People are hungry for Lao creative production. Nor is a Cali-based childrens book author and founder of Sahthu Press. Just one of a few Lao-led publishing/printing organizations in US. He's known for the book Xieng Mieng. Chanida Phaengdara-Potter is the cofounder of Little Laos on the Prairie. She's Minneapolis-based. It's a literary/cultural journal thats online—making the stories and visual galleries she's curated super accessible for our community.
IH: I'm wondering if you've ever felt that you needed to restrict yourself in your own work, and how you deal with that.
SV: I will say that I didn't feel bold in my writing until ten years ago. It took me taking my first writing class, with Lori Young-Williams and Sherry Quan Lee. At that time, I lived in Mankato.Every Saturday morning, I would drive two hours to Minneapolis for this writing workshop, and every Saturday afternoon, I would drive back. I did it because I was getting so much out of it. They were challenging me to write honestly, and I had never done that. Before then, I had never written a poem about my family, or my refugee identity. It wasn't just the instructors, but also other women in that class who made that space feel very safe. For instance, Carolyn Holbrook was in that class. One time, this man approached our class and said something really off-the-cuff offensive. And Carolyn clapped back, and I was like, "That's who I want to be! I want to be her, when I grow up." I've always been an outspoken person, but to see her do that and stand up for all of us in that moment, it really triggered something for me.
I also used to really care what my elders thought. How do I get them to respect my work? How do I get them to validate me? When we did Kung Fu Zombies, I was getting quite a bit of criticism from my community, because I wasn't depicting my community accurately. For instance, there was a monk who was black, a monk who was an ex-gangbanger, a monk who hugged a protagonist to comfort them. And that didn't make sense to [the elders in my community]. But culture is dynamic. It changes. Come on! It's a play with zombies who know kung fu. Why can't I imagine what Buddhism could be like? Writing that play made me more bold to test what I can and cannot do.
The role of an artist has always been to put up a mirror. Artists were silenced and killed during communist Lao. Their work was dictated. If they didn't want to be punished, they had to create propaganda art. To create the work I do is to push back at that.
Irene Hsu is a recent Minneapolis transplant from the Bay Area, where she spent most of her childhood and college years. She is a current Marketing & Communications Intern at the Loft, as well as an Editorial Intern at Graywolf Press. Her poetry has been recognized by the Ina Coolbrith Memorial Prize and has appeared in the Asian American Writer's Workshop's editorial platform, the Margins. She is currently working on a personal essay about studying literature in the Silicon Valley.